Pint-Sized Phenoms: End-of-year Girl Power

As the end of the year approaches we are inundated with people of the year winners and Top 10 lists. There's even an award for "Sports Kid of the Year," awarded by SI Kids.

This year's winner is Noah Flegel, the 14-and-under world champion in wakeboarding.  While the top three finalists were all boys, four girls were part of the top 10 semi-finalists: Nastasya Generalova (11, Rhythmic Gymnastics), Sage Donnelly (11, Kayaking), Lauren Williams (12, Track), and Lynne Wang (10, Swimming).  I found Lynne's story particularly inspiring.  Lynne is missing part of her left arm, but that didn't stop her from qualifying for the 2011 Junior Olympics in the 100-yard butterfly (note that this is for able-bodied swimmers, not those with a disability).

Another inspirational, 11-year-old female athlete is Wakana Ueda.  Last week Wakana completed the Honolulu Marathon.  Her time wasn't impressive (she finished in 14 hours, 3 minutes, and 12 seconds). So why mention her? Well, besides her age, Wakana is blind.  The Japanese youngseter pushed through significant physical discomfort to finish the race-- something I'm not sure I could ever do!

But female athletes aren't the only impressive pint-sized phenoms.  Seventeen-year-old Californian Angela Zhang is an extremely impressive young woman.  Earlier this month Angela won the 2011 Seimens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, along with $100,000 scholarship.  Her research, on how to eradicate cancer stem cells, could be available as a treatment in 15 to 20 years. Not surprisingly, Angela is also an Intel International Science and Engineering Fair winner (two years in a row, in fact).  It's great to see a young, female scientist excel so early in her scientific "career;" I can only imagine how far she will go with her education and with the right mentorship.

Good luck to all of these pint-sized phenoms in 2012, and beyond!

Shrinking and Pinking: "Little" League Edition

The Little League World Series is upon us. While we will have to wait until August 28th to find out who the champions of the sandlot are this summer, the qualifying games are already in full swing. But "little leaguers" have been busy all summer, participating in a variety of sporting activities around the globe. 1. Eight-year-old "Princess" Jasmine Parr faced a shrinking and pinking backlash after a June kickboxing fight against Georgina "Punchout" Barton.  The seven- and eight-year-olds duked it out in Australia, where their fight was ruled a draw.  They kicked and hit one another in front of nearly 500, some of whom gave them cash tips.  Girls and competitive activities have created quite a furor in Australia this summer (see some of my coverage of this summer's child beauty pageant conflict in Australia). What's interesting is that many of the complaints between the two activities are similar-- claims of child abuse, along with concerns about physical and emotional harm (although the immediate physical danger of potential brain injury is clearly far greater in a kickboxing match).  In both cases calls for government investigation and intervention were made; and, in both cases, the parents of the involved girls defended their decisions citing the child's enjoyment and preparation for the realities of life.

What's interesting to me is that I think there would have been an issue whether it was girls or boys participating in child beauty pageants in Australian. I'm not so sure the reaction would have been so similar if this was a bout between seven- and eight-year-old boys.  Of course, many would have been appalled, but I don't think the reaction would have been as strong as young girls fighting, because "Princess" and "Punchout" trangress gender norms in a very different way than Eden Wood (child beauty pageants can be said to over-emphasize femininity).

Australia seems to be at the forefront of confronting issues of competitive childhoods. Many Aussie parents seem to be moving in a more "American-style" direction with structured childhoods, while others resist it. Case in point: I've been fascinated for some time that Peggy Liddick was brought to Australia from the US to run their women's artistic gymnastics program (Liddick had coached World Champion and Olympian Shannon Miller, among others).  The US has famously made us of coaches from the former USSR, but now American coaches are being exported to help jumpstart aspiring programs. Will Australia tend to follow in competitive parenting traditions of the US, or establish her own patterns?

2. In an example of how even the most quotidian childhood game can turn competitive, look no further than reigning queen and king "mibsters" Bailey Narr and Brandon Matchett. After seeing their accomplishment written up in the August 8th Sports Illustrated, as part of "Faces in the Crowd," I had to look up the National Marbles Tournament. I discovered that those who are serious about competitive marbles are called "mibsters" and that these eleven- and twelve-year-old members of marbles royalty each won $2000 scholarships.  The National Marbles Tournament has been held since 1922-- a time when many other competitive children's activities also got their start (like the National Spelling Bee, for example).  Yet more evidence that the American tradition of transforming children's games into serious, money-making endeavors is nothing new.

3. It is Little League Baseball which has, arguably, most successfully transformed a youthful, summertime pastime into a highly competitive and lucrative enterprise.  The Little League World Series  (LLWS) is evidence of the spread of American-style youth competition across the globe. And it seems that the World Series does help identify future Major Leaguers. As a recent piece in the current SI Kids shows, professional athletes often get their first taste of high-stakes competition in Williamsport, including current Major Leaguers Jason Varitek (Red Sox catcher, LLWS 1984) and Colby Rasmus (Cardinals centerfielder, LLWS 1999).  Most interesting is that Chris Drury played in the 1989 LLWS-- helping lead his US championship team from Connecticut to victory.  Drury pitched and hit in the Series. Yet Drury is now a star in the NHL, playing center for the Rangers.  Drury's success just goes to show that young athletes don't have to specialize so young.  They can, and should, pursue multiple sports and activities in childhood-- including kickboxing and marbles, of course.

Youngest SportsKids Ever?

The last issue of Sports Illustrated Kids highlighted the achievements of six-year-old Courtney Diemar. Courtney lives in Colorado and competes in triathlons.  She was first in her age group at the 2010 IronKids national championships, beating other six-year-old girls by more than a minute.  Judging by her picture, Courtney doesn't look very fierce, so I wondered how many kids she trounced on her way to victory.  I assumed not many six-year-olds compete in triathlons, but it turns out 32 of them competed in the national tournament-- and 13 of them were girls (note that three six-year-old boys beat Courtney).

Courtney was one of four kids featured as January/February SportsKids of the "month."  Along with Courtney 13-year-old Connor was honored for cycling, 10-year-old Makayla for soccer, and thirteen-year-old Kirran for golf. It's easy enough to nominate a child for this honor. You simply fill out an online form, detailing the child's sports, academic, and community service accomplishments. In the March issue of Sports Illustrated Kids, which I just received, this month's four honorees are all about the same ages, and they tend to participate in unusual sports (thirteen-year-old Lauren competes in archery, nine-year-old Jason in cross-country, fourteen-year-old Davon in football, and nine-year-old Alyssa in trampoline).

Sports Illustrated runs a similar piece each week, called "Faces in the Crowd," which has been a feature of the magazine since January 1956 (it's two years younger than the magazine itself, which Henry Luce started in 1954).  When "Faces in the Crowd" turned fifty, SI looked back at the 15,672 amateur athletes who had been featured up to that point [some of the results are in this Wikipedia entry, or you can look up the original in the December 15, 2006 issue entitled "Face in the Crowd (A Brief History)"]. A few of the fun facts include:

  • 5,706 Female Faces
  • 263 Faces Named John
  • 123 Faces Named Smith
  • 233 Sports Represented
  • 96 Countries Represented
  • 68 Faces who later appeared on cover of SI
  • 56 sets of twins that have appeared in Faces
  • 3 SI Staffers that have been featured in Faces (Dan Jenkins, Bev Oden, Candy Putnam)
  • 31 Women who were selected as Faces for being Beauty Queens

(One of my personal faves is Vera Wang's 1968 appearance for figure skating; of course, she went on to design figure skating costumes for my favorite figure skater of all time, Michelle Kwan.)

To my knowledge, no one has taken a similar look at the kids who have been honored in the SI Kids version. Not only would it be interesting to know the gender breakdown in the fully post-Title IX environment, along with the sports which seem to vary greatly, it would also be important to look at the ages of those who have appeared.

It's a common refrain in the media (myself included) that kids are more competitive in sports at younger ages than ever before.  This is enormously difficult to document with data though. By looking at the ages of SportsKids we would possibly see this downward trend-- think about six-year-old Courtney. I'm guessing no one like Courtney appeared in 1989, when SI Kids started.

SI Kids- call me!